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September 5, 2012 |  9 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Redefining the West's Relations with Russia

John Taylor: Although over 20 years have passed since the end of the Cold War, tensions between Russia and the West continue to exist. The West needs a new approach that takes into account Russia’s own foreign policy perspective and shows an understanding of its domestic challenges.

Russian foreign policy is often portrayed by Western foreign policy analysts as aggressive and unpredictable. This criticism usually carries with it the implication that Russia continues to be a threat to Western interests and that its long-term goal is to re-establish the power and prestige of the former Soviet Union. President Putin's public statements, in particular his assertion that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century", have reinforced this view. However, such an approach ignores the many existential problems confronting Russia as well as its legitimate security interests. Therefore, rather than define Russia's foreign policy in terms of the potential threat it poses to Western countries, this article shows Russia's foreign policy to be a reflection of the internal weaknesses within the country and to be a response to the security challenges it faces.

One of the major problems confronting Russia is the overreliance of its economy on oil and natural gas exports, In this regard, most of Russia's requirements for food, finished goods and services have to be imported. This structural weakness is compounded by the business and social climate in the country, where because of widespread corruption private firms are obliged to pay protection money to state officials or criminal gangs in order to stay in business - a practise, which effectively stifles activity in all sectors of the economy. Linked to the problem of corruption is Russia's poor human rights record. Western countries have responded to both issues by imposing sanctions against Russian high-ranking officials for their alleged involvement in corruption and human-rights abuses, but the attention given to this problem in the West has tended to overlook the fact that corruption is a deep-rooted social phenomenon in Russian society dating back many centuries.

Politically, the Russian Federation remains a fragile entity. Allegations of widespread fraud in last year's Duma's elections and the inability of the authorities to deal with the problem of systemic corruption have undermined the legitimacy of the country's ruling elite. Moreover, there remains an ever-present danger that one or more of Russia's constituent republics may, at some stage, vie for independence. President Putin's constant reference to Russia as a unitary state and the name of the country's largest political party, "United Russia", tacitly acknowledges this possibility.

Against this background, Russian foreign policy can be seen as trying to address some of the problems, described here. Russia's intervention in the Caucasus, in particular its wars against Chechnya and Georgia, have been aimed at securing control over a region which is rich in the natural energy resources that generate most of Russia's foreign currency earnings. A further aim has been to discourage its rebellious republics in the southern part of the country from breaking away. Similarly, Russia's support for Iran and Syria, which lie near to the Caucasus, has been aimed at strengthening its position in the region. These are strategies that the West might find fault with, but they prioritize Russia's national interests.

In Europe, Russia's vehement opposition to the deployment of the Missile Defense Shield - which has been accompanied by threats against its neighbours in Eastern Europe - is a source of further friction with the West. However, Russia's objections should be seen primarily as an attempt to retain a limited form of influence over its former satellites in Eastern Europe and to demonstrate that it still represents a serious military power, despite the fall of the Soviet Union.

Although Russia's actions have generated considerable concern in Western countries, there are still reasons for believing that Russia is interested in maintaining good relations with the US and Europe. Russia continues to support NATO's presence in Afghanistan and recently concluded a new arms limitation treaty with the US. Moreover, Western Europe remains the most important market for Russia's energy exports, and Russia has persisted in its efforts to lift visa restrictions with the EU. In broader terms, Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization signifies its determination to integrate itself into the world economy while Russian corporations continue to invest in Western countries.

In conclusion, any assessment of Russian foreign policy must take into account the internal pressures within the country as well as what Russia perceives to be its own security needs. In this respect, it is wrong to assume that Russia's actions are automatically directed against the West when its policy clashes with Western interests. Nor is it sufficient to resort to clichés such as the ‘Russian Bear' or to point to Putin's past career in the KGB, when frictions arise between Russia and the West. A deeper understanding of Russia's foreign policy goals, as outlined in this article, is needed for the West to be able to better manage its relationship with a country that is still emerging from over 70 years of totalitarian rule.

John Taylor recently completed an M.A in War Studies at Kings College London and is currently pursuing a career in International Relations.

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Tags: | diplomacy | the West | Russia |
 
Comments
Vikas  Kumar

September 5, 2012

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I like Mr Taylor's approach that tries to steer clear of ad hoc or prejudiced understandings of Russia's foreign policy. But there is one crucial point that he has ignored.

It seems that the problem Russia faces today while choosing its foreign policy goes all the way back to the times of Peter, the Great. Since then (if not earlier) Russia continues to crave for recognition from West Europe (and, later, the North Atlantic). It wants to count as an equal. By repeatedly asserting themselves against the West in international relations, the Russian elite want to grab recognition and attention. Their assertions may secure some national interests as well but such assertions are not sufficient to protect Russian interests. If tomorrow the United States starts unilaterally bombing Syria or Iran, then there is nothing Russia (and China) could do change the course of events. And Russia or at least Putin knows this well.
 
John  Taylor

September 6, 2012

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Hello Vikas - thank you for your comments. I agree that Russia wants to be treated as an equal partner by the West. President Putin has often referred to this in his public statements, but, I think, his primary goal is still the survival of Russia as a single unitary state. It is true that Russia is much less powerful than the US but it remains the second largest nuclear power in the world and could cause the West considerable problems if it wanted to. Russia could respond to any military intervention against Iran or Syria by providing the regimes in those countries with arms including anti-aircraft weaponry while NATO remains dependent on Russian logistical support to carry out its operations in Afghanistan. My point is that policy makers in the West need to come to a better understanding of what motivates Russia's foreign policy rather than just see Russia in terms of its potential threat value.
 
Vikas  Kumar

September 6, 2012

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John,

I broadly agree with you. But let me add that there is difference between the power to spoil a party and the power to throw a party. Russia can spoil Uncle Sam's party in Libya or Syria. But it cannot throw a counter-party for Syria after spoiling Uncle Sam's party.

I'll push my point a little further. 'Don't mess with me else I will use nukes' (e.g., Russia, Pakistan) is substantively different from 'Don't mess with him too much else he could use nukes' (e.g. USA).

Regarding your point about US supply lines to Afghanistan through Russian sphere of influence, it suffices to note that if Russia does not allow supplies to go through and USA fails to retreat orderly then Russia (with its Caucasian underbelly) and its Central Asian proteges will be the biggest losers (behind Pakistan and India, of course) due to the re-birth of the Taliban. Russia has no choice in this regard, unfortunately. In other words, they are not doing NATO a favour that they can withdraw as they please.

In any case, thanks again for the nice analysis.

Best,
Vikas
 
Olga  Tuzhikova

September 7, 2012

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Indeed, due to the historical development and geographical location the West and Russia have different strategic and geopolitical interests. After the collapse of the USSR Russia lost its international authority and power over the soviet republics. Currently the Russian Federation does not have so many supporters as the Western countries. Therefore the foreign policy of the state is aimed at reestablishing its position on the international arena and finding allies.
The problems of Russian Federation such as corruption and poor human rights which were underlined by Mr. Taylor are the main obstacles towards an improvement of the situation in the country. Corruption and a lack of human rights create bad investment climate in Russia and discourage direct foreign investment, which are very important for the economic development of a state. Moreover, democratic deficit is also a serious problem which might undermine political stability of the state and make it unreliable for the West. High reliance on the gas and oil exports also prevents economic development of the country, since other industries are often left without proper attention.
Regarding relations with NATO I can say that despite the fact that this organization is no longer just a military one, Russia is still cautious towards the Alliance. The active placement of a Missile Defense Shield on the territory of the member states of NATO especially near the Russian borders is perceived by Moscow as a threat to the security of the state since it changes the geopolitical balance of power in the Baltic region. For this reason Russia is not interested in further enlargement of NATO, especially to the North. However, the country is willing to cooperate with the Alliance in order to defend its interests.
 
Franco  Garbelotto

September 10, 2012

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Hello Everybody,

Thank You John for your useful analysis. I share your view that to understand Russian foreign policies we must mainly take Russia's national interests into consideration. The image Europe, the US and the rest of the World have of Russia is still shaped by the fear of the Russian Bear and the preconceptions created by Soviet foreign policy. I think President Putin, whether willingly or not, is feeding some of these fears of the international community through some of his foreign policy decision.

I certainly agree with Olga's point that Russia is trying to reestablish its position in the international community. Nonetheless, the way President Putin is trying to do that seems somewhat erratic. On one hand, he showed a consistent will to collaborate with the United States and NATO on a number of issues, such as Iran's Nuclear program and the reduction of the Russian nuclear stockpile. On the other, Russia still shows great signs of distress as soon as her areas of interest are touched. Threatening eastern european Countries over the Missile Defense Shield and engaging in war over South Ossetia are certainly not positive actions if you are seeking to reestablish your position in the Region. The explanation I have found for these acts of pure power politics lies in internal politics more than international politics.
In a far-from-democratic State as Russia, President Putin decided to implement the most common "weapon-of-mass-distraction", namely the creation of external enemies, to move the national public's attention away from the internal political problems. The war in South Ossetia served both as a means to reaffirm Russia's position in the Caucasus and as a tool to strenghten national unity against any form of separatism - a signal to chechnyan rebels?

On a different point, I'd like to intervene in Vikas' and John's discussion over nuclear power. While it is undoubtable that Russian nuclear forces are still very large and potentially threatening, they do not constitute a strong political weapon in the hands of Russia right now. It is doubtful that Russia would respond to a US intervention in Syria in any practical way. President Putin would certainly voice his disappointment, maybe make some general threats, but I don't think he'd have the courage and the means to disrupt US activities in any way.
Nuclear weapons are useful for deterring an attack against the country who has them. Deterring an attack against a third State is quite difficult, more so if You consider the thin ideological and strategic political ties between Russia and Syria.
 
Olga  Papadopoulou

September 10, 2012

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Dear John.
Firstly, thank you very much for your article and analysis.

It is obvious that Russia encounters internal weaknesses and security challenges within its borders.
As you stated, the danger remains since one or more of Russia's constituent republics may, at some stage, vie for independence.
Specifically, the danger of separatism is high. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islam has increased its importance in the Russian Federation and began to have a major influence, becoming the basic element of certain ethnic groups' identity.
Moreover, attacks and intergroup conflicts have strengthened the religious identity among Muslim populations and may result in the rise of radicalisation or fundamentalism among Muslims There are 14.5 million Muslims in the Russian Federation (i.e. 10 percent of the total population), representing more than 40 ethnic groups with different languages, cultures and traditions. In general, Muslims are concentrated in two of seven regions, the North Caucasus and the Volga-Ural area.
Consequently, the question if religious identification could be a mobilising factor for separatism is more than applicable, especially in the Volga-Ural region, which is one of the most important areas of instability in Russia. For example, the movement for a “Great Tatarstan” with the unification of the Tatar diaspora into a new state extending beyond its present borders. Bashkortostan has also followed separatism but in a lower degree compared to Tatarstan
The conclusion is that religious identification can contribute along with ethnic identification, to attitudes towards separatism.
 
Franco  Garbelotto

September 10, 2012

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Dear Olga,

I agree with your point. Religious conflict can be an important factor in strenghtening separatist movements and motivate some regions of Russia to ask for independence. But I think the questions we should ask ourselves are these: how is Russia responding to this challange and how does President Putin plan to deal with it in the future? Is police repression or even military intervention the right solution?
There are bound to be religious and ethnic differences in a Country as big as Russia. President Putin has the difficult job of balancing his strive for a united Russia with the centrifugal forces coming from the periphery of Russia, while making sure that the right message gets passed on to the international community. Every action the President will undertake will be screened by the international media under the lenses of minority rights and human rights. Putin cannot afford to blindly pursue his perceived national interest - even when it comes to "national" problems such as Chechnya - without taking into consideration the judgement of all the other international actors, especially when it comes to conflicts over the sovereignity of neighboring Countries.
The obvious non-military solution to the problem would be to grant more Autonomy to some sapartist regions, in order to soften their demands and better integrate them in the Federation. But such a solution also bares the risk of initiating a spiral of increasing demands, therefore working against the initial goal. Moreover, it would not be applicable to all those macro-regional separatisms that embrace territories of different countries.
Probably, the ideal first step towards a solution would be to implement a true and complete democratic system in the Russian Federation, but that is still quite far way.
 
John  Taylor

September 13, 2012

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Thank you for your comments. The danger, Olga Papadopoulou has pointed out, of Russia breaking up along ethnic or religious lines touches upon a clash of interests between Russia and the West. I believe Russia views the West’s fixation on the Middle East as a potential threat to its own stability. While the US is determined to retain control over the energy resources in the Middle East, Russia fears that a US/western presence in a region so close to its borders will encourage the ethnic minorities in the southern part of the country to rise up against Moscow’s rule. Western support for Georgia during the Caucasian War in 2008 has served to heighten these fears.

I disagree with Franco - when it comes to preserving the unity of the Russian state, Putin does not care about international criticism and is prepared to use brute force to keep the country together. He demonstrated this during the second war in Chechnya. With regard to Putin’s opposition to the deployment of the missile defence shield system in Eastern Europe I think another a reason for his hostility is the desire not to appear weak in front of his own people.

Having said that I agree with Olga Tuzhikova's observation that the biggest threat to Russia is the systemic corruption within the country. Most Russians I have spoken to have told me that nearly all the officials within the government continue to steal from the state. In consequence, the Russian state lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens and while this situation continues, Russia remains inherently unstable.
 
Olga  Papadopoulou

September 20, 2012

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Dear John.
Dear Franko

First of all, thank you very much for your useful comments.
As concerns how Russian Federation is responding to future separatist movements in its territotries to this challange and how does President Putin is dealing with them, certainly police repression or even military intervention is not the right solution, smt that Putin seems to follow but in specific regions.

Geography plays a significant role in all decisions.
More specifically in Tatarstan (Tatars ethnic group is the majority), Putin doesn't want to intervene because of economical reasons. Tatarstan is one of the most economically developed regions of Russia, highly industrialized with region's main source of wealth, oil. The same apply also for Bashkortostan (here be aware also that Bashkirs ethnic group is the minority).
Moreover, take also in consideration that in 1992, that it was Tatarstan together with Cheshnya that refuse to sign the Federation Treaty. And it was also Tatarstan that in 1994 leveraged from Moscow a treaty recognizing it as a “State … united with the Russian Federation.”
Consequently, all we know the different trajectories that Tatarstan and Cheshnya with Dagestan (North Caucasus) follow in the political arena.
But an interesting question that comes is why no significant protests have taken place in Tatatrstan during era-Putin?
Again the answer is related with Geography, but now from Tatars' side. Tatars do not feel any economic insecurity compared with e.g. Dagestanis.

 

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